“Some of your characters leap off the page,” favourite beta reader told me, “but some are really flat.” I was miffed. This was a work of non-fiction, I was merely introducing the reader to people I bumped into on the road, why should that need any work?
I requested clarification, a little archly. She told me how much she liked Ooooors’la, the tiny lady who pronounced her own name as though she were unwell, and who drove her forklift truck with a pinkie finger raised as thought taking tea with the queen. I giggled, “Oh she was funny, I liked her…”
Then she listed the people she couldn’t quite see, the ones who stayed resolutely non-dimensional. “Well, I didn’t want to be nasty because I don’t want the book to be a bitch-fest.” As the conversation progressed, we twigged that the all the people I’d liked leapt off the page and the ones I’d hated stayed put, resolutely indistinguishable from each other.
She turned all psychotherapist on me. If I could only make the people feel real if I liked them, I was going to have to find something to like about everyone, whatever it took. And actually, wasn’t I supposed to be adding a bit of conflict anyway? What the hell was the point of walking away from yer actual genuine interpersonal conflict just to feel like a nice person? The book was suffering because I wanted to be able to like the character of me.
I tried. I rewrote the girl I’d not wanted to bitch about. Four times. At first I cheated, just stuck a bit of dialogue in. I didn’t get away with it though, “She’s not funny yet, she won’t be real until you find the funny.” Clever beta person knows me too well, once I’m amused by someone I can’t help myself. We struggled on. And as soon as I found the funny, I realised that I could spin the whole awfulness of how much I’d hated this girl in a way that ridiculed both of us. I got to like her and now she dances off the page. Really annoyingly.
I went through the manuscript, examining the people I’d hated, they were all hopelessly plastic. It was as though I was punishing them for having pissed me off by making them boring. This might be a satisfying tactic on one level but it was pretty self-defeating if I wanted to sell any books. I revisited the conflict, looked for the funny, and rewrote them all. Sometimes I added dialogue, but not to cheat this time…not as a band-aid to pacify the show-not-tell brigade but because it was just better that way.
I wanted to explore all this a bit more with people who wrote real characters. (And by ‘real’ I mean, of course, fictional.) I made the mistake of asking my son, a playwright these days, whether he had to be emotionally involved with his characters. “You have to care enough to want to understand their motivation,” he said, “but not too much. If you love them or hate them the audience picks it up and you lose all suspense.” He added that fiction worked that way too, characters you could relate to on the page had to stand or fall by the consequences of their decisions, not by your desire to save or punish them. “Then you might as well be writing 24,” he added as wisely as you can when educating your Mum, “we know Jack’ll be ok because he’s the hero and there’s another series planned.”
When he began with what Stanislavsky has to offer the fiction writer I suggested he consider a guest post and mulled things over a bit more.
I’ve got an easy job, I’m merely putting caricatures in cameo roles as I romp around the world. My people need only raise a grin and then I’ve moved on anyway, they don’t have to take you with them and make you care, it’s another reason I’m too chicken to write fiction. All this pondering leads me to a question for you fiction writers out there who tell me the characters in your head take over and do their own thing in your books. Do you like them? Are they more or less real if you get to care about them? Can you hate them too, or do you have to get just invested enough but not too much?
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Carolyn writes websites, copy and nonsense about emigrating. She also occasionally ambles off to do something daft in case it’s interesting enough to write about. Her current work in progress grew from the blog Trucking in English, and her previous book can be found on Amazon.